BELL (AP) — A city official accused of presiding over a working-class suburb of Los Angeles as if it were his own personal fiefdom, buying off the city council with six-figure salaries and falsifying documents to hide his own enormous pay, is due in court Tuesday to face dozens of corruption charges.
Prosecutors say Robert Rizzo masterminded a scheme that looted more than $5.5 million from the city of Bell, driving it to the brink of bankruptcy. Rizzo, Bell’s longtime city manager until he was fired last year, has pleaded not guilty to than 50 counts of misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest and falsifying public records.
He was expected to appear before Superior Court Judge Henry J. Hall for a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence for him to stand trial.
Rizzo, who had an annual salary and compensation package of $1.5 million, is free on $2 million bail. His attorney, James Spertus, says Rizzo committed no crime in accepting a salary that outraged the public after it was reported by the Los Angeles Times last summer.
“His contracts were presented by the City Council and countersigned by the city attorney, and he acted openly and transparently,” Spertus has told The Associated Press.
Scheduled to appear with Rizzo at the hearing are Bell Mayor Oscar Hernandez, former Councilman Luis Artiga and former Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia.
Spaccia is charged with four counts of misappropriation of public funds, and Hernandez and Artiga are charged with illegally accepting loans of city money from Rizzo that authorities say he was not authorized to make.
After a similar hearing last week, Hernandez, Artiga and four other current and former Bell officials were ordered to stand trial on nearly two dozen counts of taking annual salaries of about $100,000 a year.
The money included council salaries 20 times more than what is allowed by law, Hall said, as well as money paid for service on phantom commissions that did no work.
Rizzo, prosecutors say, was the mastermind of it all, running a scam from his office in City Hall that bilked Bell, a city of 40,000 where one in six people live in poverty, out of millions. When a resident filed a state public records request in 2008 to learn what Bell officials were making, authorities say, Rizzo falsified the records to make it appear their salaries were much less.
“Rizzo acted as a godfather of sorts,” prosecutors wrote in documents filed in court last week, adding he bought loyalty by paying huge salaries to key employees and using nearly $2 million in public money to make dozens of unauthorized loans to people.
They also released portions of an e-mail exchange Spaccia had with Bell’s former police chief, who was paid $457,000 a year before he was fired last year. In it, she warned him not to demand too high a salary, saying one of Rizzo’s favorite expressions was that pigs get fat while hogs get slaughtered.
“As long as we’re not hogs … all is well,” said Spaccia, who made more than $375,000 a year.
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